home
RSS
My Take: 'I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out
The author notes that more and more young people are rejecting traditional religion and taking up a variety of spiritual practices.
September 29th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: 'I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out

By Alan Miller, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Alan Miller is Director of The New York Salon and Co-Founder of London's Old Truman Brewery. He is speaking at The Battle of Ideas at London's Barbican in October.

By Alan Miller, Special to CNN

The increasingly common refrain that "I'm spiritual, but not religious," represents some of the most retrogressive aspects of contemporary society. The spiritual but not religious "movement" - an inappropriate term as that would suggest some collective, organizational aspect - highlights the implosion of belief that has struck at the heart of Western society.

Spiritual but not religious people are especially prevalent in the younger population in the United States, although a recent study has argued that it is not so much that people have stopped believing in God, but rather have drifted from formal institutions.

It seems that just being a part of a religious institution is nowadays associated negatively, with everything from the Religious Right to child abuse, back to the Crusades and of course with terrorism today.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

Those in the spiritual-but-not-religious camp are peddling the notion that by being independent - by choosing an "individual relationship" to some concept of "higher power", energy, oneness or something-or-other - they are in a deeper, more profound relationship than one that is coerced via a large institution like a church.

That attitude fits with the message we are receiving more and more that "feeling" something somehow is more pure and perhaps, more "true” than having to fit in with the doctrine, practices, rules and observations of a formal institution that are handed down to us.

The trouble is that “spiritual but not religious” offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind.

What is it, this "spiritual" identity as such? What is practiced? What is believed?

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

The accusation is often leveled that such questions betray a rigidity of outlook, all a tad doctrinaire and rather old-fashioned.

But when the contemporary fashion is for an abundance of relativist "truths" and what appears to be in the ascendancy is how one "feels" and even governments aim to have a "happiness agenda," desperate to fill a gap at the heart of civic society, then being old-fashioned may not be such a terrible accusation.

It is within the context of today's anti-big, anti-discipline, anti-challenging climate - in combination with a therapeutic turn in which everything can be resolved through addressing my inner existential being - that the spiritual but not religious outlook has flourished.

The boom in megachurches merely reflect this sidelining of serious religious study for networking, drop-in centers and positive feelings.

Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices.

A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an, let alone The Old or New Testament.

So what, one may ask?

Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work.

Indeed, it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses - an entirely radical moment that had enormous consequences for humanity.

Moreover, the spiritual but not religious reflect the "me" generation of self-obsessed, truth-is-whatever-you-feel-it-to-be thinking, where big, historic, demanding institutions that have expectations about behavior, attitudes and observance and rules are jettisoned yet nothing positive is put in replacement.

The idea of sin has always been accompanied by the sense of what one could do to improve oneself and impact the world.

Yet the spiritual-but-not-religious outlook sees the human as one that simply wants to experience "nice things" and "feel better." There is little of transformation here and nothing that points to any kind of project that can inspire or transform us.

At the heart of the spiritual but not religious attitude is an unwillingness to take a real position. Influenced by the contribution of modern science, there is a reluctance to advocate a literalist translation of the world.

But these people will not abandon their affiliation to the sense that there is "something out there," so they do not go along with a rationalist and materialistic explanation of the world, in which humans are responsible to themselves and one another for their actions - and for the future.

Theirs is a world of fence-sitting, not-knowingess, but not-trying-ness either. Take a stand, I say. Which one is it? A belief in God and Scripture or a commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of human-based knowledge, reason and action? Being spiritual but not religious avoids having to think too hard about having to decide.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: My Take • Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (9,993 Responses)
  1. tj

    Mind your own business, you twits.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • tc

      That's like saying "I'm an athletic person", I just havn't been to the gym or jogging or played a sport in 10 years. To be something you have to participate in it.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  2. Brian Gardner

    Whoever wrote this article is the exact type of person they're ranting against! I'm spiritual, but not religious. To me that means I believe in God, but I believe in sleeping in on Sundays too. It means I'll read and decide what to believe for myself instead of having someone tell me what to believe.

    I think this person has a chip on their shoulder because some self absorbed hipster who called himself spiritual, but not religious. Glad you make sweeping generalizations for a group of people that, even you acknowledge, do not consider themselves a group.

    I believe there is some truth in all religion and no religion has all of it. I study, I learn, I make up my own mind. That's what I want for everyone. If it leads you to Christianity, Buddhism, anything in between, or a mixture....great. Just think for yourself and don't judge my beliefs simply because you don't agree with them.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • E

      And what is wrong for those who think for themselves and choose unity?

      What is wrong in finding a common purpose or common causes, provided those causes are for the greater good?

      I have yet to see an individual completely alone launch rockets for exploration, figure out and cure complex diseases, or feed starving nations.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • roscoe

      Yeah well you know what ticks me off? People who are religious but not spiritual. You know the kind: people who go through all the motions of whatever it is their religion tells them to do, but at the end of the day these people have no compassion, no empathy, no tolerance, no nothing, for anyone or anything. These 'religious' people who are so utterly judgmental of others, who take no joy in life, who are just plain sad.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • E

      @roscoe

      Somehow, I think the percentage of what you described will be greater in the "spiritual but not religious" and "neither" than in the "religious but not spiritual" or "both."

      Take the bigger picture.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  3. ChrisInLA

    (continued from previous post)

    "A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there..." ALL religions are hodgepodges of dogma and practices borrowed, adapted and invented over time. Baptism has its roots in the Jewish mikvah. Transubstantiation began not with Jesus but the Fourth Council of the Laterna in 1215. Clerical celibacy owes as much to church economics as to commitment to the Bride of Christ. Even individuals within formal religions choose what to accept and what to reject: there are atheist and Buddhist Jews, Catholics who practice contraception, Muslims to drink alcohol.

    (continued in next post)

    September 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Joe

      Your whole series of posts can be summarized in a single word: bullshit.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  4. ChrisInLA

    (continued from previous post)

    I do belong to an organized religion–but only after decades of exploration and consideration during which I struggled to find a set of values and commitments that satisfied me. I know many people who do not subscribe to a group but still have a strong, inquisitive, morally admirable sense of principles that include a less specified universal power. Like any positions that cannot be proven or disproven, belief in God and atheism are acts of faith. And so are all the positions in between.

    (continued in next post)

    September 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • End Religion

      atheism is to faith as
      transparent is to color

      September 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  5. Leeroy

    I think the author should write an article on being "Religious but not Spiritual" and report on which is better. :) As for me, I think it's in poor taste to pick on other people's religions or beliefs. I think that that is in harmony with one of our Articles of Faith. For the record, I'm a Mormon. :)

    September 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Do you wear your magic underwear?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Leeroy

      Absolutely. Wouldn't leave home without them. Check out the missionaries to see how you can get a pair of your very own. BTW, the author might consider a third topic for you: "Not religious or Spiritual". ;)

      September 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • End Religion

      Leeroy emailed me. He's embarrassed to admit he does where magic underwear. It is pink with frilly lace edges, with a repeating design of little gold Joseph Smith plates.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Leeroy

      Looks like I beat you to your extremely funny punch line "End Religion". Maybe to author should consider a fourth article for you called "No religion, no Spirit, no humor". :)

      September 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  6. Steve

    I can't believe CNN would post something like this. I'm removing CNN from my bookmark.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • nope

      @steve
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Athy

      Wow, Steve. Removing their bookmark! That'll teach them a lesson, won't it?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Chris S

      Steve,
      Don't take it off your app. It makes for an interesting conversation. It's definitely thought provoking.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  7. Religion_KIlls_Sometimes_Spirituality_Never

    roch_doc, It is religion which has to grow into spirituality and not other way around. roch_doc, I do not think that you and I are fooling ourselves, because these are our individual views.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
  8. ChrisInLA

    While I agree with the author's contention that there are certainly a great many in the world who reject organized religion through a laziness of thinking or moral courage, his rigidity in suggesting there are only two paths–hierarchies, formalized practices, rules and history or a touchy-feelie, New Age affectation–betrays an arrogance by not considering a third (or fourth or fifth) possibility.

    (continued in next post)

    September 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      They don't reject religion through laziness. They reject it by THINKING, using logic and reason instead of blindly accepting ancient mythology and superst!tious nonsense as reality.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • nope

      @luis
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Joe

      ChrisInLA, holy wrongthink there. Hoping for a sky fairy of a religion to swoop in and save you rather than dealing with your own problems is pure cowardice in and of itself. Thinking that you are "special" in the eyes of that sky fairy is also arrogant.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • nope

      @joe '
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  9. Chucky

    I read this twice because I couldn't believe what I was reading. Terribly pompous of one to try to come between another and their way to God. Far be it from me, one of the spritual but not religious, to be so arrogant as to think I know a better way for anyone.

    I'm so glad I don't live by a set dogma especially if it breeds this kind of derision and contempt. Honestly, I think we as spritual not religious believers are evolving beyond the confines of rigid religion used to distort and control populations.

    There is one thing I will take away from this sad confession of stagnant thinking. I need to exercise more discipline in my individual relationship with God. Thanks for making me a better person yet again religious zealots!

    September 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Joe

      Yeah, but Chucky, first prove that there is a god. So far no one has.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Chucky

      Hey Joe! That's the beauty of it, I don't need to. I don't come between you and your beliefs, you don't come between me and mine. We're both logical human beings that have our ways in the world and we're doing just fine with what we've each individually figured out. I don't dislike anyone based on beliefs because honestly, no one knows for sure what happens beyond death. You can chose to beleive you cease because your bodily functions cease, or you can chose to believe you go on to another dimension of existence because your soul is eternal. Not a one of us cause prove the truth of what happens after death. Either way, it doesn't matter because we'll be dead. Death, the great leveling field! With the threat of sounding like a hippy, I just want clean air, water, and soil, healthy food, a cure for cancer, regular weather seasons in Montana, lots of friends and family, and good times to balance the challenging ones. But maybe that's just me.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  10. Joe

    Our evangelist ass hole "nope" has been reduced to single word replies, not that he ever had an argument to make. He's quite the pathetic, cowardly little troll.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      And single syllable word too. Probably all his simple mind can come up with.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • nope

      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • nope

      @joe,
      nope

      September 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • truth be told

      I've read some of your stuff "nope" is right you're wrong and "nope" states it with an assured grace.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  11. Bob Fasic

    The author has a high regard for structure and dogma. Consider the personal relationship between self and god contained in the practices of native americans. Is it impossible for me to have a personal visual communication with Jesus? Can I not talk to god as if he or she were here with me?

    September 30, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Athy

      You can't talk to something that doesn't exist.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • igoryok

      So you want to equate your approach to taht of numerous native american tribes, yet still narrow it down to Christian central tenets that were initially used to subjugate and exploit native Americans, discrediting their beliefs as primitive and barbaric?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  12. Bills Cat

    The trouble is that “spiritual but not religious” offers no positive exposition or understanding or explanation of a body of belief or set of principles of any kind.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  13. Mike Devereaux

    In America, Americans enjoy freedoms. I don't tell you Alan that you must eat your hamburger at McDonalds. And if you don't think that your hamburger is exactly like religion, then back-off. You're a very little, little close-minded fellow, Alan.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  14. conston

    While I agree with the author's contention that there are certainly a great many in the world who reject organized religion through a laziness of thinking or moral courage, his rigidity in suggesting there are only two paths–hierarchies, formalized practices, rules and history or a touchy-feely, Whoa Bro affectation–betrays an arrogance by not considering a third (or fourth or fifth) possibility.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  15. chloe

    I am one who rejected religion due to the fact that there is too much hate being spread in the name of God. And I'm tired of people using God as their scapegoat when THEY made a mistake, i.e. "It's God's will" instead of "I made the wrong choice and now I must face the consequences". The implication is that I am sitting on a fence and not making decisions or caring only for myself – simply untrue! I care more for others than myself and no one would ever accuse me of sitting on a fence! I'm always one who takes a stand. I can say the same for all my other friends who are more spiritual than religions. He has his right to his opinion – but I completely disagree with his concept.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • tony

      I agree 100% with you. I belief in a direct connection with "God" with no man between us. Very simple...

      September 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  16. conston

    flaccidity

    September 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  17. Davin

    Really CNN?!? I thought I was reading The Onion there for a minute. Does this man have any formal secular education?

    September 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  18. noslen

    being spritual mean I don't have to send my hard earned money to some place who then can calim it as tax free income

    September 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  19. a10000lies

    Just because some people don't share the same "conventional" religious beliefs that you do, does not mean they are a "fence sitter". Who are you to tell people to pick a side? You know no better than the next person what happens to you, if anything, after you die. The more and more I get pulled into reading these articles in the belief section the more I see ignorance.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      And what's wrong with fence sitting, it just means you don't pretend to actually know one way or the other.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • a10000lies

      Agreed.

      September 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • alex

      Fence siting is the middle of the road, dogma and organized religion may be the first steps into the spiritual path, but who if not us is responsible for finding God within us?

      September 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  20. Nick

    What a load of crap this commentary is. Why does CNN put this on the front page?

    September 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 136 137 138 139 140 141 142 143 144 145 146 147 148 149 150 151 152 153 154 155 156 157 158 159 160 161 162 163 164 165 166 167 168 169 170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182 183 184 185 186 187 188 189 190 191 192 193 194 195 196 197 198 199 200 201 202 203 204 205 206 207 208 209 210 211 212 213 214 215 216 217 218 219 220 221 222 223 224 225 226 227 228 229 230 231 232 233 234 235 236 237 238 239 240 241 242 243 244 245 246 247 248 249 250 251 252 253 254 255 256 257 258 259 260 261 262

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Advertisement
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.